LILONGWE - In an attempt to correct misconceptions about Islam and Muslims, a leading Islamic organization in Malawi has introduced a program to educate Christian teachers on the true nature of the second largest faith in the largely dominated Christian southern African nation.
Islam in Malawi has been subjected to various forms of stereotyping and misconceptions by Malawians of other faith groups due to among others, lack of knowledge of what Islam is and is not, Sheikh Ahmed Chienda, Programme Coordinator of the Islamic Information Bureau (IIB), told OnIslam.net.
It's for this reason, that we have been compelled to introduce this program for non-Muslim teachers to educate them on various aspects which they don't understand about our religion.
Few Christians in Malawi have the zeal to learn about Islam. Most of them think, by doing so, they will automatically embrace Islam. Due to this attitude and little knowledge, Christians have distorted certain aspects about Islam. They have associated Islam with all sorts of negative things, said Chienda.
This deliberate distortion has created a fertile ground for many misconceptions and prejudices and these have contributed to rising levels of discrimination against Muslims. We are continuously being discriminated against in many ways at various levels of the society due to the little knowledge Malawians of other faith groups have of Islam.
Introduced by IIB, the program seeks to remove the misconceptions and stereotypes about Islam and to foster peaceful co-existence between Muslims and Christians in the country through workshops and other initiatives.
And at the same time, we are educating people on what is Islam and what's not, Chienda said.
The idea of the program followed a decision issued by the Malawi government a few years ago in which it introduced Religious and Moral Education (RME) in its primary schools to offer school children an opportunity to learn various religions, including Islam.
Yet, the absence of qualified teachers who have enough information about Islam limited the impact of the ambitious program.
But the most unfortunate thing about this subject is that, the teachers, who most of them are Christians don't know anything about Islam, as a result it has not yet registered its intended impact, therefore, through this program, the teachers are able to learn Islam and in turn, the knowledge is passed on to the children, Chienda said.
Children from Christian families are therefore able to know and understand much about Islam at a very tender age.
Applied across the country, the program has won plaudits from Christian teachers and religious organizations as well.
We are getting very encouraging remarks from people across the country confessing that the picture they had about Islam was a wrong one based on wrong information, Chienda told OnIslam.net.
This is a clear indication that this program was having a greater impact on people.
Targeting primary school teachers, Chienda said they were picked because they are channels through which information and knowledge can pass.
We would like this knowledge the teachers are acquiring to trickle down to the grassroots and transform people's mindset.
A regular participant to these workshops, Ruth Chikatentha, a now retired primary school teacher said her negative attitude towards Islam and Muslims has now changed through the program.
I grew up hating Muslims and Islam. This was due to the information my parents used to give me about this religion. I have been growing believing that Islam was not a religion at all. It was not real. This had cultivated in me seeds of hatred, Chikatentha, a self-confessed devout Christian told OnIslam.net.
Contrary to what my parents were telling me about Islam at a tender age, I have now come to discover the truth and beauty about Islam. I have discovered through this program that Islam is the way of life and it is religion of peace. Much of the negativity this religion is subjected to is as a result of lack of knowledge, she added.
Describing the initiative as a great milestone towards promotion of peaceful co-existence between Muslims and Christians, Chikatentha said she has taken up an initiative to educate fellow Christians on the beauty of Islam.
This program has turned me into an ambassador of promoting peaceful co-existence between these two major religions in Malawi, because I have now known what Islam is all about she said.
The combination of Islam and Christianity makes me a complete creation, because I'm able to understand and respect other people's religious beliefs.
Sister Mary Banda, a Catholic Sister and teacher whose denomination is the largest Christian grouping in the country, has also praised the program for changing her wrong perception of Islam.
I have always perceived Islam as a violent religion with no regard for human life. But through this program, I should confess that this perception was wrong, Banda told OnIslam.net.
This has changed my understanding of Islam and how I can relate to Muslims as fellow human beings. Much of our criticism towards Muslims has been very unwarranted and resulting from lack of knowledge.
I have now discovered the truth that I will live with forever.
The program has won itself plaudits from prominent religious organizations in the country, including the Public Affairs Committee (PAC), a quasi-religious grouping which commended the program as a basis of peaceful religious co-existence.
Understanding each others' religious beliefs is the basis for peaceful co-existence in any society, Bishop James Tengatenga, Chairperson of the grouping, told OnIslam.net.
This program therefore fulfils that role. If all faith groups in the country had adopted such an initiative, there would be no serious religious disputes resulting from religious differences.
Islam is the second largest religion in Malawi after Christianity. It accounts for 23% of the country's 14 million population.
But the Muslim Association of Malawi ( MAM), the country's mother body for Muslims, puts the number at 36 percent according to the census it conducted a few years ago.
Unless Muslims and Christians could co-exist peacefully, it is going to be very hard for any meaningful development to be realized, said Chienda.Therefore, our program aims also at enhancing the development of the country where all Malawians regardless of their beliefs shall take part without being discriminated against on the basis of religion.